Union ‘gravely worried’ about children’s home

Assault reports, inadequate staffing and indoor mould top a list of concerns Children’s Receiving Home staff have brought to the Yukon…

Assault reports, inadequate staffing and indoor mould top a list of concerns Children’s Receiving Home staff have brought to the Yukon Employees’ Union.

“We are gravely, gravely worried,” union vice-president Loralee Kesler told the News on Wednesday.

“The Children’s Receiving Home is a real hot pot,” she said.

“The union is very committed to getting these issues looked after — not only for the youth but for the staff that are there.”

In fact, the union’s file on problems at the home is so large it was split in half: union president Laurie Butterworth focused on the problems with mould while Kesler tackled the other issues.

The home, located at 5080 Fifth Avenue in downtown Whitehorse, can accommodate up to 15 in-care children between the ages of 10 and 18.

Run by Yukon Health and Social Services, the facility has been the source of several problems, said Kesler.

The union began investigating the facility last month when one of its employees was assaulted.

Kesler could not talk about the type or extent of the assault. But it was “worse than a punch,” she said.

“An assault is an assault and it’s violence in the workplace,” she said.

“It was eye-opening and we said, ‘We have to look into this,’” said Kesler.

When the union began probing problems in the home, it found more than it bargained for.

“As we talked with staff, we found there had been a number of complaints filed but they hadn’t actually left the department,” said Kesler.

Children stay in the home longer than 90 days, which is supposed to be the maximum stay at the facility, said Kesler.

“We have youth that have been back and forth in that building for more than a year. And, sadly, some of those children are bouncing between young offenders and the receiving home.”

From January to May, there have been 46 calls to the RCMP because of problems at the receiving home, New Democrat leader Todd Hardy told the legislature on Wednesday.

Last year there were six.

The staff is doing the best they can with what they’ve been given, said Kesler.

But the home is not designed for the children’s needs.

There are blind corners, small rooms and narrow hallways.

“They are things that are not suitable for the youth that are in our care and the government needs to be made aware of this,” said Kesler.

In April, four types of mould were discovered in the home’s walls, according to a Yukon property management report given to the News last month.

“No staff came forward with health concerns before the mould was discovered,” said Jody Morey, Children’s Receiving Home acting supervisor in a recent interview.

But after a government investigation confirmed there were four types of mould in the building, two staff members took leave from their jobs at the home.

“The mould is causing allergy and asthma symptoms — so much so that some of the staff have gone to their doctors and take time off,” said Kesler.

“We are aware of a couple staff who have identified the mould as an allergen trigger that has caused them to be sick,” she said.

This week, the New Democrats brought the union’s concerns to the legislature.

“They are finding out that mould is a serious health problem,” Hardy told the News on Wednesday.

“You should not be taking children and putting them into a house where there’s mould, nor should you have staff working in this building.

“It’s a big concern and waiting is not proactive — it’s not good enough.

“Workers and young children being exposed to mould is just not good enough,” said Hardy.

“I don’t condemn the (Health) minister for the problems; I condemn him for his inaction and the lack of seriousness he’s applied to these issues.”

A report, drafted in 2001, recommends the Children’s Receiving Home and two other group homes be replaced in favour of smaller facilities.

The facilities “should be replaced over the next two to three years as their physical configurations are of an excessively institutional nature,” said the report titled Their Future Begins Today: Yukon’s Residential Care Review.

“New locations need to be found that offer a more family-style environment.…” it said.

In 2005-06 there was $809,000 in the budget to build a new group home.

By 2006-07 that sum dwindled to $50,000 and in 2007-08 that item disappeared from the budget completely.

The union wants to know what happened to the money.

Health Minister Brad Cathers refused to be interviewed on this subject.

Premier Dennis Fentie fielded questions for him.

“I’m not sure,” said Fentie, the Finance minister, when asked where the money went.

“There’s a big budget here and departments make decisions on the budget cycle.

“A new group home I can’t speak to.”

When told Fentie had directed reporters to ask the department about the money, Social Services spokesperson Pat Living laughed.

She promised to look into it.

The government is “following every rule and regulation and policy” it has to ensure safety of employees at the group homes, Fentie told reporters on Thursday.

“That said, that is why the children’s act review is taking place.”

That review is now three years old.

Draft legislation was supposed to have been completed in December 2005. The legislation was supposed to have been implemented in the fall of 2006.

It is now promised for this fall, or next spring.

The Yukon government expects to have 80 children in temporary care and 122 children in permanent care in Whitehorse in 2007-08.